From Rail to Rickshaw: The Urban Transit Bible


If you’re looking to tour the world of urban transportation without leaving your armchair, then Straphanger might be the book for you. The book describes how people get around in a dozen global cities, including Tokyo, Paris, Copenhagen, New York, and Philadelphia.

Written by travel writer Taras Grescoe, Straphanger (a term used to describe those who ride mass transit and trains), is a whirlwind tour of getting around by train, bus, subway, car and bike. The writer is upfront about his affinity for public transit as well as his general aversion to cars, and his rants about the negatives of automobiles are somewhat distracting from the narrative. Despite the author’s bias, the book does weigh the pros and cons of each form of transit, detailing how poorly implemented rail or bus lines can be just as wasteful and destructive as the development of ill-conceived freeways.

Grescoe is at his best when he focuses on the history of how transit has evolved (the digging of the New York Subway, the removal of street cars in Los Angeles) and the role politics has played in bringing each city to its current state. In addition to the history, the author draws conclusions about how their current transit systems will affect the future development of the cities – he’s bullish that Bogota, Portland and Philadelphia will do well, while the title of the chapter on Phoenix says it all: “Highway to Hell.”

Straphanger is loaded with take-your-breath-away factoids, such as the fact that in Tokyo, public transit hosts 43 million daily rides per day, or 2.5 times that of the ridership in the entire United States. Wow. Cyclists will be amazed to read about commuting by cargo bike in Copenhagen, a city with weather like London’s but more bike-to-workers than the entire US.

Grescoe’s travel writing skills are in full force throughout, as when reading you can imagine yourself being squeezed tight by strangers in the Tokyo subway, or changing radio stations as you sit in traffic in Phoenix. A nice complement to the paperback would have been at least a few photos to fill in the gaps in your mind’s eye when moving from page to page. I’m fortunate enough to have visited three-fourths of the places described in the book, and after reading Straphanger, I’m more motivated than ever to leave the car behind when I go to see the rest.

Article by John Gartner, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.



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